The Desire for Immortality: A Reading of the Maddaddam Trilogy
In the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood, the human race is characterized by a constant desire to achieve immortality. For the scientists at the CorpSeCorps, this means creating the Anooyoo Spa and the genetically mutated pigoons—symbols of society’s need to preserve beauty and prevent death. This idea of immortality is also demonstrated through the Crakers, who have no understanding of the concept of death and as a result exist in an eternal present. Ultimately, through symbols in Oryx and Crake and in MaddAddam, Atwood demonstrates that the desire to escape death is what leads to the death of society in the end.
Society’s need to achieve immortality is first demonstrated through the Anooyoo Spa— a place where people go largely to escape the effects of aging. As Jimmy describes, it is filled with “Cosmetic creams, workout equipment…pills to make you fatter, thinner, hairier, balder, whiter, browner, blacker, sexier, and happier” (Atwood Oryx 248). The Anooyoo Spa therefore becomes a symbol of society’s need to prevent aging and remain young and beautiful forever. Perhaps that is why when Crake creates his Crakers, he makes them all so beautiful—so that they never feel the need to change how they look. In the first novel, the CorpSeCorps also fund projects like “Operation Immortality” as well as the creation of pigoons, a genetically spliced breed of pigs whose organs were supposedly much cheaper than “getting yourself cloned for spare parts or keeping a for-harvest child or two stashed away in some illegal baby orchard” (Oryx 23). The pigoons, like the Anooyoo Spa, become a symbol of society’s need to live forever. And so when the human race crumbles, the juxtaposition of that failure with the thriving pigoon race once again becomes representative of humans’ inability to achieve immortality.
Despite the fact that they were created simply as a tool to aid the survival of the human race, the pigoons ultimately become a successful species in and of themselves. And in the case of the Crakers, Crake designs them to have no culture, no writing, no god, and ultimately no sense of mortality. As Crake describes, “Immortality is a concept. If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality is the absence of such fear” (Oryx 303). In creating the Crakers without any knowledge of death, he effectively prevents them from ever needing more than what they already have. In this way, they already think themselves immortal. But what Crake fails to plan for with his Crakers is the fact that Jimmy’s stories effectively immortalize Crake as their God. In doing so, Crake himself achieves a kind of unintended immortality. And just as the pigoons eventually spiral out of control, becoming a species capable of threatening human survival, the Crakers evolve into far more than Crake had ever designed them to be. The Crakers, like the pigoons, are created as a means to an end, rather than as ends themselves. The scientists at the CorpSeCorps invented the pigoons to grow human organs and Crake created his Crakers in order to preserve the planet and its resources. But in both cases, the unintended consequences of each invention trumps each inventor’s desire to attain immortality—the scientists are killed off along with the rest of the human race and Crake’s desire to create an immortal planet fails when the Crakers begin to learn.
Ironically, the Crakers, a species created specifically to avoid the desire for immortality, inevitably stumbles upon it through the Gods Gardeners. Perhaps Toby was right in asking, “What can of worms have I opened…Have I ruined them? (MaddAddam 204). When Toby introduces writing to Blackbeard, she ultimately destroys Crake’s plan for his Crakers in that they now not only have the beginnings of religion with Crake as their God and Creator, but they have a sense of history and therefore a sense of time as well. If Crake believed that culture, the knowledge of death, religion, and all of those aspects of human civilization are what destroyed society, then his Crakers are doomed to hold the same fate as well.
Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy demonstrates that the desire to achieve immortality leads to downfall— first with the human race and now with the Crakers. Perhaps Crake’s contribution was not that he saved the planet from the greed of the human race. Rather, he postponed it a short while until the Crakers inevitably exerted the same kind of negative influence.
Childhood Trauma in the MaddAddam Trilogy
Childhood Trauma in the MaddAddam Trilogy
Memories of youth and adolescence are an integral aspect of one’s maturation. The consequences of traumatizing childhoods can affect children throughout the remainder of their lives, as those who fail to confront their damages subsequently fail to truly move on. The outcomes of a negative adolescent experience are evident in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy through the many characters who lose their innocence at a young age. As a result of their adolescent experiences, these characters grow up with many defining characteristics that can be traced back to their early years. Through the characters Jimmy, Ren, and Blackbeard, Atwood demonstrates how the quality of one’s childhood ultimately affects his or her mental development into adulthood.
In Atwood’s first novel, Oryx and Crake, the protagonist Jimmy suffers an unhappy childhood of neglect and disregard and consequently finds himself forever discontent in adulthood. While perhaps the clearest moment of abandonment in his childhood is when Jimmy’s mother leaves him, taking with her his best friend Killer, a genetically modified “rakunk,” Jimmy’s life before his mother’s abandonment is still replete with neglect. Growing up, he is unable to garner love from both of his parents – a father unable to connect with his mediocre son and a mother who is constantly withdrawn and emotionally unstable. This neglect becomes most evident on Jimmy’s birthdays when his parents would consistently forget and his father would simply “send him an e-birthday card – the OrganInc standard design” (Oryx 50). Jimmy’s lack of an emotional connection with his parents ultimately damages his ability to form relationships with others in adulthood. While Jimmy seeks physical satisfaction in his many sexual partners, he never feels emotionally invested in his lovers. This inability to form lasting deep relationships with others is ultimately a reflection of his poor relationship with his parents.
While Jimmy’s unhappy childhood results in an inability to forge meaningful relationships, Ren’s unstable childhood in Atwood’s Year of the Flood, results in a lack of self worth and emotional security. Ren’s childhood is replete with instability. As her self-centered mother Lucerne forces them to move on multiple occasions for her own personal pursuits, Ren’s sense of safety and comfort diminish, and any sources of consistency and peace in her life disappear. Furthermore, throughout her childhood, Ren lacks a stable father figure; she is forced away from her biological father Frank, and her relationship with her substitute father figure Zeb is unreliable and ultimately fails when Lucerne decides to uproot their lives once again. This lack of stability during childhood results in a lack of emotional wellbeing later in life. As an adult, Ren is insecure and naïve; she constantly seeks validation of self worth, as evidenced in her role at Scales and Tails, a place in which she feels assured of her value as not “disposable” but instead useful—“talent” (Year 282). This insecurity and desperation for validation stems from her lack of stability as an adolescent and ultimately stunts her emotional maturity as an adult.
Unlike Ren and Jimmy, the character Blackbeard in Atwood’s MaddAddam demonstrates how a happy childhood results in positive psychological development. As a Craker, a genetically modified “ideal” human, Blackbeard’s childhood is positive and constructive; he is nurtured throughout adolescence and surrounded by a strong sense of family and community. This constructive environment for development results in strong psychological maturation, as Blackbeard consistently demonstrates a positive attitude and sense of curiosity. This is perhaps best reflected in his encounters with Toby, specifically when she teaches him to read and write. As she enlightens Blackbeard, the precocious Craker quickly gains interest in the new skill, excitedly telling her, “It did, Oh Toby,… It said my name! I told my name to Ren!” (MaddAddam 203). Blackbeard’s exceptional interest in learning is a result of his positive upbringing. Without the emotional trauma that Jimmy and Ren experience, Blackbeard is able to foster his sense of curiosity and direct his attention toward educational development.
While characters in all three of Atwood’s novels demonstrate the effects of childhood development, the character Oryx is a reflection of the opposite. Despite her many traumatic experiences throughout adolescence, Oryx remains a source of peace and positivity. This drastic difference in the effects of childhood trauma perhaps lies in the characters’ fundamentally different life philosophies. Oryx’s ability to cope with her scarring experiences stems from her ability to accept things as they are; rather than repressing her memories or refusing to confront them, Oryx accepts her fate, and in her acceptance, finds the contentment and reassurance that others lack.
MaddAddam as a Biblical Allegory
The MaddAddam series by Margaret Atwood can best be described as a commentary on every aspect of society. One of the most prevalent themes in Atwood’s series is religion, which is apparent in the names she assigns to different aspects of her society(God’s Gardeners), and in the many biblical references and symbols such as the snakes used at Scales and Tails, tempting their morally corrupt customers. Throughout each one of the individual novels, many blatantly religious aspects are integrated, but upon reflecting on the series as a whole, the obvious biblical plot becomes clear. Atwood uses symbolism, character development, and tone to develop the MaddAddam series as a biblical allegory.
Beginning in Oryx and Crake, the plot and symbolism serve to set up the proceeding events. The novel starts with the idea that everyone in the futuristic society is trying to play God, through gene experimentation and excessive scientific “progress”. Already, we begin to see how this society mimics that of the Old Testament, in the fact that people have begun to think themselves invincible; acting selfishly and without morality. Then the flood is introduced. The idea of the flood is derived from the flood in which God allowed Noah to survive along with the animals destined to repopulate the earth. In Atwood’s flood, Jimmy is designated to survive by Crake and is meant to take care of the Crakers, who are to repopulate the world.
In the novels, Crake obviously fulfills the role of God, taking matters of life and death of the human race into his own hands. He creates a new race of humanoid Crakers, and seems almost all-knowing when he allows Jimmy to kill him and rear this new race of creatures. He is also worshipped as a God in the post-flood world. “Yes. Good, kind, Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story,” the Crakers are permitted to think lovingly of their creator while Jimmy knows the true nature of Crake; he allows them to see their creator as a merciful, kind one, rather than a vengeful god (Oryx and Crake 64). In this way he acts much like Jesus in the New Testament. It also becomes clear through Jimmy’s backstory that he is a flawed individual, who does not act as everyone else expects him to behave. Atwood paints him as a portrayal of Jesus Christ, who comes to save humanity, not as a god, but as a flawed hero. After the flood, Jimmy acts as a spiritual guide and teacher to the Crakers, teaching them about their history and encouraging them to ritualize and worship Crake and Oryx. But the culmination of Jimmy’s symbolism as Jesus Christ appears in MaddAddam, when he sacrifices his own life for the betterment of society through saving Toby, who goes on to teach the Crakers to write.
Atwood also develops the biblical mood of the series through her use of tone. The atmosphere and mindset of the God’s Gardeners create an extremely religious tone for the entirety of The Year of the Flood. “The task of saving the chosen species was given to Noah,” Atwood alludes to the Bible, “keeping God’s beloved species safe until the waters of the Flood had receded,” ( The Year of the Flood 90). Lines like these help to reinforce not only the Biblical references in Atwood’s novels, but the story of Jimmy acting as Jesus Christ. Atwood also perpetuates the tone in Oryx and Crake, before integrating the teachings of God’s Gardeners, with concepts such as Jimmy’s idolization of a woman who is not morally upright. His adoration of Oryx despite her morally skewed background creates a tone which correlates with the mindset that Christians are implored to uphold.
At first glance, many of Atwood’s biblical references seem like satirical quips, made in an attempt to poke fun at religious institutions and their followers. Upon reading the entire MaddAddam series, however, the reader understands that each religious allusion is in fact part of a series-wide portrayal of events written in the Bible. In this way, Atwood satirizes writing itself, and her own series, as well as the compelling need of humanity to depend on a set of beliefs, as we see through the upbringing of the Crakers. Margaret Atwood crafts this elaborate satire through her use of symbolism, character development, and tone, to prove that our human tendencies truly cannot be changed or wiped out. Even in a world that seems so far gone from what the reader knows, the same human desires are what drive the cyclical, inevitable downfall of mankind.